Measure for Measure
Royal Shakespeare Company
The Lowry, Salford
It is easy to find present-day parallels for events in Measure for Measure. After all, the UK has recently had a Prime Minister who walked away from a mess he made and one of his successors has been accused of abuse of power and making unwanted advances towards women.
In early 20th century Vienna, The Duke (Antony Byrne) finds his liberal policies are blamed for the development of a squalid community of loose morality. Unable to face putting things right, he leaves the city and appoints the puritan Angelo (Sandy Grierson) to govern in his stead. Angelo makes an example of Claudio (James Clooney) and sentences him to death for getting his girlfriend pregnant. When Claudio’s sister Isabella (Lucy Phelps) entreats Angelo for mercy, he consents on condition she agrees to have sex with him. It is an offer Isabella is bound to refuse—she is, after all, a novice nun.
Being topical does not mean Measure for Measure is a good play. The realistic setting makes it hard to accept Shakespeare’s fantastic plot twists and his comic characters—a gormless constable—are familiar from other plays. There are so many contrivances that, on occasion, Antony Byrne seems unable to believe what he is saying and his voice cracks in incredulity. Director Gregory Doran papers over the gaps in the plot by shifting the play away from a study in morality and hypocrisy to suggest that, rather than abrogating responsibility, The Duke is suspicious of Angelo from the start and is devising an elaborate trap. To a degree this works but The Duke is so careless of the emotional impact his schemes have upon other people his actions are callous and cruel rather than admirable.
Doran does not actually show the corrosive impact of The Duke’s liberal policies upon the wider community. Various unsavoury characters appear but they are all prosperous and, notably, clean rather than the dregs of society. Joseph Arkley‘s Lucio is a suave dandy who might have stepped out of an Oscar Wilde play rather than a shabby brothel creeper. Doran uses dark scenes within the play—including a severed head spitting on The Duke—to suggest the decay within the wider environment. The fact that the gaol, in a chaotic scene, is shown to be pretty much run by the inmates may be symbolic of wider societal problems.
The plot may be thin but the cast create vivid and convincing central characters with severe psychological problems. The Duke’s decision to leave is preceded by an emotional meltdown in the middle of a dance. Sandy Grierson’s Angelo is a true puritan with a martyr complex going so far as to wear a spiked cilice belt around his leg. Grierson plays Angelo as someone so innocent of temptation that he is seduced by his first feelings of sexual attraction. It is a tormented performance full of self-loathing. Towards the end of the play, as Angelo’s true nature is revealed, Grierson seems desperate to be condemned and punished. It would be fascinating to see Grierson tackle the role of Macbeth.
Few of the characters in the play are wholly admirable and Lucy Phelps’s Isabella is no exception. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Isabella’s wish to enter a convent is as much to do with trying to cut herself off from the sensual experiences she find hard to endure as much as any religious faith. Phelps suggests Isabella has much in common with Angelo and shares his repressive beliefs. In their initial confrontation Phelps seems motivated not by any desire to save her brother but simply the unexpected pleasure of enjoying her own oratory.
Yet Phelps draws out a deep trauma underlying Isabella’s motives. When Antonio makes his move and embraces her, Isabella goes catatonic as if reliving some past trauma. Isabella seems utterly repressed and incapable of coping with any highly emotional event or physical contact—she behaves the same way when The Duke proposes marriage.
The psychological depth brought to the play cannot conceal the flaws in Measure for Measure but do ensure a production that is consistently engaging.
(Measure for Measure is part of a trio of plays from the Royal Shakespeare Company and returns to The Lowry on 4 and 5 October 2019.)
Reviewer: David Cunningham